Iowa Gardeners Know
After gardening for a quarter of a century in Iowa, I've learned some hard-won lessons. I wish someone would have told me early on and saved me a lot of work and expense.
• Iowa is a great gardening climate!
Sometimes, I think it gets a bad rap because our winters are so brutally cold. But we have gorgeous soil and ample rainfall. If you want to have a beautiful garden in Iowa, it's not hard.
• The best plants for Iowa are...
The best plants for Iowa aren't drought-tolerant or necessarily natives or "wildflowers". They're plants that can stand extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry. In the land-locked Midwest, we can have a very cold winter followed by a very hot (and humid) summer, not to mention breath-takingly quick changes in the weather.
• Know your natives.
Terminology is confusing. A wildflower can be something that grows wild anywhere in the world. Or it can be a plant from another continent that started growing on its own in the wild, the way ditch daylilies have. And be careful about native plants. It may be native to a shady swamp in Florida--hardly a great choice for your front yard in Iowa. Look for natives touted as prairie or Midwestern natives, especially upper Midwestern natives. American woodland natives also are often good choices for shady spots, as long as they're native to places similar to Iowa.
Click here for a downloadable pdf file of an introductory listing of native Iowa prairie plants compiled by the Iowa State University Extension. There is also a fairly complete database of native Iowa plants compiled by the Iowa Living Roadway Trust Fund that provides lots of information. You will also find links to pdf files listing the plants in the database on the same web page.
• Snow is good.
Except for that bit about having to shovel it from your driveway, be happy about it. It's often called "white mulch" and protects perennials and roses from extreme cold.
• Read labels with a grain of salt.
Plant retailers tend to overstate plant hardiness. So, if you live in Zone 4, try to find plants that do well in Zone 3. And if you live in Zone 5, try to find plants that do well in Zone 4.
• Reconsider hybrid tea roses.
On that note, keep in mind that hybrid tea roses (touted as Zone 5), are often called the most expensive annuals you can buy. They're beautiful, and are unsurpassed for cutting, but they require mounding and wrapping to last most Iowa winters. Even then, it's a crap shoot. They are also disease and pest magnets in our climate.
• Compost. Compost. Compost.
Nothing improves soil more than compost. Every good garden must have a compost heap. Or two. Or six. Good gardeners spend lots of time, every year, improving their soil by working in lots of compost. And they work in perfecting their composting skills every year. It's something you get a knack for.
• Gardeners love to share plants.
Take advantage of gardeners' generosity. Don't be shy! Some of my favorite plants have been from friends and family, and it's the best way to have a gorgeous garden on a budget. Plus, if someone has enough to share, you know they are plants that do well in Iowa.
• Much good comes from mulch.
Mulch often and well. It conserves moisture, supresses weeds, and prevents certain diseases. There are few plants that shouldn't be mulched. Mulch perennials, trees, and shrubs with shredded bark mulch. I like to order it in bulk in the spring to save money. Mulch vegetables with newspaper topped with grass clippings.
• Understand "negative ornamental value."
Jeff Iles, the horticulture department chair at Iowa State taught me this one. If a plant is struggling and looks ugly, pitch it, cut it down, or dig it up. Plants don't live forever. (This is especially true of houseplants!) We Iowans are a thrify lot and hate to get rid of something we paid good money for.
• Kill a lot of plants.
Most of the really good gardeners I know—including me—aren’t fazed by killing a lot of plants. They know it’s all part of the learning process—learning about gardening, your climate, and your yard. If you’ve spent a lot of money, it does sting, but don’t label yourself as having a black thumb. Good gardeners expect to lose a good number of plants every year, or plant something that never came up. Embrace it!